What We Owe to Each Other

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I ended up preaching a sermon on consent, which is definitely something I’d love to hear other pastors do. But definitely not the kind of sermon I grew up hearing.

Jubilee Baptist Church, February 18, 2020

What We Owe to Each Other

Matthew 5:21-37

This passage is…a lot. So, I’m just going to take a moment and breathe before I start. 

This portion of the sermon on the mount has never been my favorite. It’s not “blessed are the poor for they shall see God” which lends itself much better to a nice, poetic sermon than these verses do. But this part of the sermon on the mount is incredibly practical for our relationships. This part of the Sermon on the Mount is often referred to as the Antitheses.

Amy-Jill Levine notes in the Women’s Bible Commentary, “The so-called ‘antitheses’ that follow are not opposing biblical Law (Torah). On the contrary, Jesus insists that Torah be kept, and a few of the antitheses are not found in Torah…” WBC, 469)

Ultimately what I think Jesus is talking about here is how human beings interact in community with one another. How do we have relationships with one another and how do we love each other well? Jesus specifically ties these interactions to sections of the Torah–his interpretation of the Jewish law. While Christians are not Jesus’ audience here, we can learn much from his words. This is a very ADULT LANGUAGE passage so I will be using some language that may not be as appropriate for children in the audience. 

It’s also important to note that Jesus is speaking to a particular audience–predominantly a jewish one–so we have to do some interpretation work here for those of us reading it in the 21st century.  I would also argue that Jesus is interpreting Torah for his context and we interpret the words of Jesus for our context while acknowledging that these words weren’t specifically meant for us.  

Also, the Bible is not a weapon *holds bible up* 

We must interrogate how this passage and others like it have been interpreted throughout church history.

If you grew up with a literal interpretation of the Bible, this passage is particularly troubling. Jesus is really good at using literary devices called metaphors. I feel a little bit like Drax in Guardians of the Galaxy right now. METAPHOR. I think he’s using one here. As in, how dare you objectify another person and not see them as fully human. It would be better for you to cut your own eyes out so that you can’t degrade another person. It would be better for you to cut your own hand off if it causes you to abuse another person in this way.

 Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher you’ve probably heard of would say it’s wrong to use a person “as a mere means” or a means to an end. He also has this concept of “a universal declaration of human rights.” I don’t agree with a lot of what Kant says, but this concept reminds me that we are to treat each other with dignity and respect. Things are to be used but people are to be loved.

Like, if your anger turns towards murderous intent instead of reconciliation, that’s a problem. And you should like, get therapy. Anger when channeled properly and used productively is great. But, if it leads you to hate someone to the point of murdering them. Well, Jesus says that’s bad. And yet, we’ve probably all definitely hated someone. The issue isn’t that anger is wrong but the potential anger has to cause harm instead of good. 

If we are not seeing each other as human beings–if we are not caring for each other well, then we need to examine how we interact with one another. 

Who gets to be angry? How is anger used to hold power and cause destruction instead of to help and heal? What is Jesus doing with the power dynamics that exist at this time?

Growing up, I was taught that anger was an emotion you should keep in check but I also grew up with an angry God. God was allowed to be angry, and men were allowed to be angry, but if you weren’t God or a man, your anger was wrong. Which was really inconvenient for me since I was angry about a lot of things. In a culture where only the powerful get to be angry, it matters that we can be angry about injustice and harness anger for good instead of abusing it. 

 Jesus is in such a patriarchal society (much like we still are today) that he has to call out his audience (particularly his male audience) for abusing and harassing women. Like. Cat calling? NOT OK. Objectifying women (or anyone of any gender)? NOT OK. 

Assuming that other human beings belong to you to use as you wish? NOT. OK. Jesus calls out these dudes and holds them accountable. That’s the part of this passage we can take literally. That we hold one another accountable for how we treat each other–especially in our more intimate relationships. yes means yes and no means no. At any point if you change your mind from yes to no, No Still Means No.  And there should not only be consent but enthusiastic consent. Ok? Ok. Moving on.

I do not think we are literally to cut off parts of our body just to keep ourselves from sinning. But then again, if we’re running with this metaphor…

We owe it to each other to live in community as fully ourselves.

BUT pastors wanna scare people half to death and say IF YOU HAVE LUST IN YOUR HEART YOU SHOULD TEAR YOUR EYES OUT. While I do think we should take objectification of other humans very seriously by holding one another accountable, I do not think it is necessary to shame people. 

When Jesus said to “love your neighbor,” he meant it. And I don’t think when Jesus said to love each other that he was talking about this superficial, hearts and rainbows kind of love. Jesus isn’t all like, “love one another! Heart emoji…” No. Jesus talks about this care for one another that involves radical inclusion and consent in all our relationships. It means we don’t use each other. It means we listen to each other and meet one another’s needs as a community. It means we owe one another consideration and care.

 I know the portions on lust and adultery have been used to shame folks instead of focus positively on our relationships with one another. That one section on divorce has caused more harm to people than we care to admit. Stop shaming folks for doing what is best for them in their relationships when they need to. 

Amy-Jill Levine adds, “In the broader Greek-speaking society, ‘adultery’ connoted illicit intercourse with ‘respectable women’ and thus indicated a violation of their honor…The Extension of the law against adultery to include lust suggests that no one should be regarded as a sex object. The burden is placed on the man: women are not held responsible for enticing men into sexual misadventures, but nor are they seen as active initiators of divorce.” (Women’s Bible Commentary, 469-470) 

 A lot of this seems like ethics–or, our conduct with one another. How do we see each other as human beings worthy of dignity and respect? How do we honor each other in all our relationships even if that means the end of a relationship for the good of all involved. 

(Some spoilers ahead for the good place)

In the show The Good Place, Eleanor Shellstrop (played by Kristen Bell) wants to know why it matters that she treats the other characters with consideration. The show loosely follows T.M. Scanlon’s ethical work entitled What We Owe to Each Other.

When Eleanor first gets to “the good place,” she can’t believe it! She’s lived a life that is selfish and has learned not to care about anyone but herself. But then she realizes, this is a case of mistaken identity. She’s in the wrong place! She might be a terrible person and maybe it matters how we treat each other. She goes to her friend (and soul mate) Chidi Anagonye, an ethics professor for help. Chidi teaches her and others on the show why it matters that we strive to be good people…because how we treat others matters in the here and now and not just in the afterlife.

 While we may not be trying to be good for “points” so we make it to “The Good place,” it does matter if we treat each other well. “You have heard it said…” is not a list of dos and don’ts. “What we owe to each other”–In the here and now–this kindom of God is where we get to show up and build community with one another.

In the words of the great philosopher, Chidi Anagonye, “ So why do it then? Why choose to be good every day, if there is no guaranteed reward we can count on now or in the afterlife? I argue that we choose to be good because of our bonds with other people and our innate desire to treat them with dignity. Simply put, we are not in this alone.” ~ The Good Place

Amen.

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